Ken Nelson R.I.P.
Ken Nelson, former head of country A&R for Capitol Records and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, died Sunday, January 6, 2008 at his home in Somis, Calif., 13 days short of his 97th birthday. He had not been ill prior to his death, according to his his daughter Claudia Nelson.
Gene Vincent's band members, the Blue Caps, remained close friends of Ken. They (Dickie, Johnny and Tommy) last spent time together with him in October of 2005 at the Rockabilly Hall of Fame's Gene Vincent Tribute Show in Van Nuys, Calif.
Posted March 10, 2001
Comments about Ken:My work was mostly in rock although the engineers at Capitol in those days were available for virtually any kind of music genre that might come to the studio. I was at the beginning of the more specialized mixer/producer that was ushered in over the objections of unions and "standard operating procedures." I did work with Ken in the studio and on several remotes including a memorable "live" recording with Wanda Jackson in Arizona and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys at Merle Haggard's house in Bakersfield - what fun, those "cowboys" knew how to have a good time! Ken was very much the executive producer by the time I was on the scene. He over saw Earl Ball, John Palidino, Al DeLory, Cliffie Stone, John Kraus, Hugh Davies and others. I was the second engineer on a few sessions where Ken was the producer. As I wrote he was always patient and quite proper (especially when I spent most of my time with Rock 'N Roll groups that were mostly self produced free for all's ;-) When I interacted with Ken he was always kind and treated me as if I could have just as easily been Merle Haggard or Buck Owens while I was, in fact, a mere Capitol employee (with long hair etc. ;-) I remember his sweater vests and laughed when I read this description. I also remember a very subtle smile that Ken had, the memory of which makes me smile to this day.
As to the music Ken produced, I had access to Capitol's entire library of music. Coming from a technical background, I was very much the student of sound quality and recording techniques. The quality of much of the music produced many years before I came on the scene was astounding! While music recording technology has advanced in facilitating the artist to redo takes and accommodate multi track layering, digital editing etc., the quality of some of the two track and four track recordings is every bit as good as it is today. In fact, I would venture out on a limb and say that imaging and third, fifth order and beyond harmonics contributing to the "air" and "live" sound of recordings may be limited by digital technology. There is seldom a day that goes by that I don't hear something on the radio or television that was done during or before my time at Capitol. It is a testament to the pioneers of sound recording and music production in general. Ken in particular was fastidious to detail and was the consummate record producer of his day. He remains a man I greatly admire to this day. He is an individual that left an indelible impression on me not only as a recording executive, but as a man.
John Wilson - firstname.lastname@example.org
The pioneering chief of Capitol's country division, Ken Nelson navigated the stars between Bakersfield and Nashville.
Ken Nelson looks more like a math teacher than a record producer, with his thick, black, Buddy Holly spectacles, short but unruly brown-gray hair, and collection of sweater-vests. He certainly boasts the sort of totals any numbers man would be proud of. Nelson recorded literally thousands of country, rock, pop, and jazz songs during his long career, including more than one hundred #1 hits.
But Nelson, the pioneering chief of Capitol Records' country music division for a quarter-century, might not have made the best of mathematicians unlike some of his Nashville colleagues, formula was not his forte. Each of the 170 artists who passed through Nelson's studio over four decades, starting in 1947, merited his or her own equation and Nelson generally allowed his artists fo find themselves.
That's why it's a bit incongruous to realize that Nelson, the man widely credited with giving a commercial voice to the Bakersfield Sound, that raw, stripped down strain of country music that came out of the West Coast in the mid- to late '50s, also produced what many consider to be a formula prototype of the Nashville Sound, Bakersfield stylist antithesis.
In November 1956, Nelson took a break from the resolute twang of Bakersfield to record Ferlin Husky's full-bodied, melancholy "Gone." Released that same month, the song hit the country charts in February 1957 and stayed there twenty-seven weeks, holding steady at #1 for ten weeks. In the process, "Gone" broke new ground in Nashville, where producers borrowed technical and artistic elements of the pop-like recording and built a succession of hits. Nelson took his doodle-pad (he was known for his impromptu sketches in the studio) and went back to Hollywood, where he made hundreds of records that were the Nashville Sound's polar opposite in both tenor and attitude. Little of Nelson's subsequent work bore any resemblance to the landmark song he had helped create - a song that became, ironically, a model for the country genre's mainstream.
Nelson is best known for having nurtured the talents of Merle Haggard, an ex-con with a thin musical resume, and Buck Owens, a career session man better known for his guitar work than his singing. Thanks to Nelson's subtle, savvy guidance, the pair put Bakersfield on the musical map in the mid-'60s with a bare-boned Telecaster-driven sound that produced a combined forty-five songs from 1963 to 1976 alone. Nelson literally orchestrated the conversion of the Bakersfield Sound from regional honky-tonk phenomenon to country music trendsetter. In addition to Owens, Haggard, and Husky, his stable included Tommy Collins, Dallas Frazier, Rose Maddox, Wanda Jackson, Wynn Stewart, Red Simpson, and Jean Shepard - in short, almost every major label artist to pass through the San Joaquin Valley in those days.
In fact, Nelson produced the song that is widely acknowledged to have been the first #1 hit in Bakersfield- based country artist Shepard's "A Dear John Letter," which, beginning in July 1963, spent twenty-three weeks on the charts, including six weeks at the top. Husky, then a Bakersfield disc jockey and band leader using the stage name Terry Preston, portrayed the song's jilted G.I. with spoken-voice poignancy.
Husky went on the road almost immediately afterward, following up on the success of "Dear John" and its sequel, "Forgive Me John," while Nelson went back to prospecting for talent on the streets of Bakersfield and elsewhere. One of the first new talent, Tommy Collins, an Oklahoma boy who had spent much of the previous year opening for Husky/Preston on the stage of Bakersfield's Rainbow Garden dance hall. Collins, in fact, had lived in Husky's home for a time, and was even "named" by his mentor during a recording session in Nelson's studio. By 1954, Collins (real name: Leonard Sipes) was Billboard magazine's Most Promising New Artist of the Year, beating out, among others, a Memphis singer named Elvis Presley, who was well down the list at #8.
Collins' first hit, 1954's "You Better Not Do That," featured the guitar work of Buck Owens, a Bakersfield recording by Collins over the next half-decade. Not long after signing Collins, Nelson heard the Farmer Boys on a Bakersfield television show and, as soon as he was able, signed the vocal duo. He then recruited Collins and Owens to lend their distinctive styles to the Farmer Boys' rowdy recordings.
With Collins, the Farmer Boys and, increasingly, most every West Coast artist to join Capitol's lineup over the next few years, nelson's style was the same: hands off. He allowed most of the artists a great deal of freedom to select, arrange, and record their material. Said Haggard, who signed with Capitol in 1965 and benefited as much as anyone from Nelson's easygoing approach: "Ken was the guy who was nice enough to let me be myself. He just let me alone do do it pretty much the way I wanted to do it."
Ken Nelson, placed in a Chicago orphanage as an infant by his divorced mother, struck out on his own at age fourteen, and was soon singing with assorted dance bands. By his late teens, he had learned to play tenor banjo, and at twenty-two he formed a vocal trio called the Campus Kids. The trio worked in clubs for two dollars a night, sometimes less, but eventually established some credentials. Nelson's dreams went far beyond the Campus Kids, however, and after a little more than a year he left the group to pursue a solo career. His ill-timed expedition led nowhere.
The Campus kids, meanwhile, quickly replaced him and landed a new post-prohibition sponsor, Seagram's. That affiliation helped them get jobs with the Harry Sosnick Orchestra, which played over Chicago's KOYW. The Sosnick Orchestra, in turn, soon signed on with Chicago-based Fibber McGee and Molly, a long- running, nationally broadcast radio program of some renown. When NBC moved the show to Los Angeles, Gillerre moved with it. "I never forgave Lee for that," Nelson said, smiling almost ruefully at the memory. "When I told him I was leaving the group, he didn't even ask me to stay."
Although his singing career had gone flat, Nelson was far from finished in the entertainment business. First, he caught on as the host of a prominent classical music program, the Symphonic Hour, broadcast during the last hour of his 5:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift on Chicago's WAAF. He was efficient and professional, if prone to occasionally butcher pronunciations: Maybe Tchaikovsky would come out chai-KOW-ski instead of chai-KOFF-ski. Finally a female listener phoned the station and declared, in a delicate French accent, that she couldn't take it anymore: "Could Nelson use a little pronunciation help in the booth.'" Nelson agreed that he could and she sat in with him for a month. The man who would later be closely associated with Buck soon became a credible advocate for Bach, and in short order he was chicago's top classical program host.
Then, in the late '30s, Nelson adopted the pseudonym Kennedy Nelson and became music director at WJJD, a competing Chicago station that offered union wages. One of his primary mandates was WJJD's classical programming tops in the market, but en route to the fulfillment of that goal, Nelson became familiar with the station's nightly Suppertime Frolic, a live "country and hillbilly" music program (featuring guitarist Les Paul) that was, at the time, a highly influential and popular country music program.
When WJJD switched from live musicians to records, Nelson was forced to become an instant expert in country music. He scanned the catalogues of hillbilly records, stocked the station's library, and acquainted himself with every major country act in the land. The countrification of Ken Nelson began.
After serving a year in the Army in World War II, Nelson returned to Chicago and resumed his old job. One day in 1945 it all changed: Gillette, by now a record producer for three-year-old Capitol Records, asked Nelson to produce a country session in Chicago with Uncle Henry's Kentucky Mountaineers. "I was scared to death, but I suppose it went all right," Nelson said.
More production work followed, including a session with the Dinning Sisters that resulted in Nelson's first hit, "Buttons and Bows." Nelson was hired permanently by Capitol Records in 1948 and he moved to Hollywood the following year. A new career was launched. In 1950, Capitol put Gillette in charge of its pop and jazz roster, leaving Nelson along with Cliffie Stone to handle the label's country artists. By 1951 or '52, Nelson was officially the chief of Capitol's country division. By this time, Nelson had already developed an uncanny knack for finding talent.
In 1951 he traveled to Shreveport, Louisiana to record an artist whose name Nelson now forgets. After the session, the two men got into a car and set out for Dallas, tuning to Webb Pierce's Shreveport-based program on the car radio. Nelson was taken with the voice of one particular singer, unfamiliar but obviously talented. At the end of the program, he listened for the singer's name, but it was never given. So Nelson ordered his driver, the now-forgotten musician, to turn the car around, and they drove all the way back to Shreveport. Without tipping his hand, Nelson coaxed the singer's name out of the on-duty disc jockey. It was Faron Young.
Nelson located the golden-throated nineteen-year-old the next day and signed him on the spot. During his career, Young made more than thirty albums, became a movie actor, a Grand Ole Opry regular and, eventually, publisher of the Nashville-based trade publication Music City News.
The Faron Young signing may have been a bit of a fluke, but it was not unusual for Nelson to travel the highways from Texas to Carolina in search of the right sound. "I used to take buses through the South and listen to the jukeboxes to see what people were listening to," said Nelson, who didn't get his driver's license until 1961 when he was fifty. "Most of the country records were selling in the South, and I wanted to see what they liked. I might be going from L.A. to Nashville, or Atlanta, or Cincinnati - I recorded in all these cities - and I knew I could get a good feel for things by stopping in the bus stops and the restaurants."
It was that instinct that led him to Collins and the Farmer Boys, whose 1954-57 recordings essentially created what eventually became known as the Bakersfield Sound. One of the prominent characteristics of that sound was the guitar work of Buck Owens, who by 1956 had established himself as Nelson's favorite hired gun, appearing on sessions with artists as diverse as Tommy Sands and Sean Frieberg, Del Reeves, and Gene Vincent.
A QUOTE FROM KEN: "I saw rock 'n' roll was the coming thing, and at first Capitol refused to recognize that," Nelson said. "But I went ahead and signed Gene Vincent, which proved that was right." Vincent's manager, "Sheriff" Tex Davis, brought Vincent to Bradley's Studios in Nashville. "I thought," Nelson explained, "have I made a mistake? Of course when they got in the studio, I realized I was okay. Gene was another sad case. He was emotionally immature. He could have been a big star here, but he was just unmaanageable."
But the sound was also distinctive because Nelson usually allowed artists to use their own band members in the studio, a practice not often done in Nashville. He permitted more prominent drums than anyone else and relied heavily on the steel guitar. Nelson's Bakersfield artists were generally louder and more electrified than their Tennessee cousins, favoring in particular the Fender Telecaster, a twangy, solid-body guitar that was all but banned from Nashville studios.
Right in the midst of the Bakersfield phenomenon's formative years, Nelson was asked to travel to Nashville for a session with Husky, who had settled in Tennessee after a stint with the Ozark Jubilee. This session was different as it could be from the bouncy twang and hillbilly exuberance of most of Nelson's West Çoast productions. Husky, a consistent if unremarkable performer in the Capitol Records stable, went into the studio with Nelson on November 7, 1956. Together they recorded the breezy, almost ethereal "Gone," which Husky had first put to vinyl for Four Star Records in 1953, when he recorded as Terry Preston. But this time he wanted something different on the Smokey Rogers tune - a longing, "achy" feel that he believed he might get with background voices, something absent from the original.
Someone suggested the Jordanaires, a male quartet that had done some session work with Elvis Presley earlier that year. Nelson who had used Los Angeles soprano Lula Jean Norman for pop, and jazz recordings back in California, wanted a female voice this time, too, but he wasn't acquainted with any in Tennessee. The Jordanaires, who were already doing four sessions a day by this time, suggested Millie Kirkham. The boys had never worked with her, but they knew of her skills from her recordings with the Anita Kerr Singers, an eight-voice women's group that was also getting plenty of work at that time.
When the Jordanaires' Gordon Stoker approached Kirkham, she was incredulous. Mixed chorus just wasn't done in Nashville at the time. "Me" she said, one girl with four boys."
The engineer had recently built a makeshift echo chamber by cementing the walls and floor of a stairwell - the little room under the concrete steps that led down into the studio. He placed a microphone and a speaker inside and reverbed it back into the board. The singers were set up in the adjacent room. "It was like singing in the bathtub," Kirkham said.
The Jordanaires' Neal Matthews arranged the song. "I was basically trying to get a big choir sound," said Matthews who decided not to use over dubbing. "With the echo and the soprano, it sounded like more voices than it was. Then with the repeats at the end - Now you're gone. . . now you're gone - which I put in there to emphasize things, it really had that choir feel to it."
Almost immediately after "Gone" got its first airplay, the techniques, coordination of musical personnel, and "feel" of the song started turning up on records everywhere, even on non-country songs produced in New York and Los Angeles echo chambers, rarely used before, came into favor. "It kicked off a lot of copy-cat sessions," said Matthews when, along with his fellow background singers earned a whole $10 for the session. "Any time you have a hit, people want to duplicate it. People will say, "Gimme that sound you had on 'Gone' or whatever."
"Gone" wasn't merely a landmark hit for the genre, it was a landmark session for everyone involved in production. "Gone" further boosted the career of the Jordanaires, and it changed Kirkham's life. "Ken Nelson wanted a soprano kind of floating around in the clouds sound", Kirkham said, "after that, a lot of people wanted soprano floating around in the clouds."
Presley was one such person. The Jordanaires told him about Kirkham, and her introduction to the man who would be king, led to a professional relationship that lasted from 1957 until Presley's death, 20 years later.
"Gone" was Husky's first No. 1 song as a solo artist. He remains convinced that it changed the way Nashville producers made money. "I'll swear by it, it's the one that started the trend." Husky said, "the first one that had an echo chamber and the first that put background and (vocals) in music the way songs before had used strings. It was the Nashville sound, one that started it all. The next thing you know, people are using background singers all over the place. They over used it. All over the United States, songs were over produced, not just in Nashville. Hell. I over-used it. I cut dozens of songs that were over-produced. I do them the way I did 'Gone'.
Nelson himself refuses to make any claims about the impact of "Gone". The producer says he went into the studio, intent on merely making a record, not pioneering an entire sub genre. None of the participants, in fact, claim to have been visionaries of any sort. But the fallout, most agreed, is undeniable. "Gone" helped to widen the field. That was the year it all began.
Nelson, who retired in 1976, lives in California. His country music record collection is sizeable, but he prefers to listen to George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Rogers and Hamerstein - show tunes and piano recordings. In another life, Nelson may have been a great lyricist. He still gets a lump in his throat from Kern's "Oh! What A Beautiful Morning!" He fulfilled a promise to himself by taking piano lessons. His Nashville-based contemporaries - Paul Cohen and Owen Bradley of Becker Records, Don Law of Columbia and Steve Sholes of RCA - were all voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Thanks to Derek Henderson for his contributions
October 15, 2005, Van Nuys California. Ken's daughter, Dickie Harrell, KEN (age 94), Tommy Facenda and Tommy Sands. The event was "Bop Street", A Tribute to Gene Vincent. Ken spoke to the audience about Gene.
Legendary producer KEN NELSON (center) with Sheriff Tex Davis (left) and Gene Vincent
Tributes to Ken Nelson
This portion of the page is an on-going tribute to one of early rock/rockabilly/country music's best recording studio producers - Ken Nelson of Capitol Records.
We will post comments here about Ken from fans, family and viewers.
Posted Sept. 15, 1999
Ken was placed in a Chicago orphanage as an infant by his divorced mother. He struck out on his own at fourteen, singing with assorted dance bands. He learned to play the tenor banjo and at 22 formed a trio, the Campus Kids, who worked for a pittance and built up a bit of a reputation. After a year or so he left the group to pursue bigger things. Unfortunately, just afterwards the Campus Kids replaced him, and in the new prohibition-free climate, got sponsorship from Seagrams, which lead to much bigger things for the group. Despite being unable to pronounce the names of the composers, Ken became a successful classical music DJ on WAAF radio station. After more successes in the world of 1930s radio, his current station WJJD switched to live music, and Ken (he called himself Kennedy in those days) had to quickly become an expert on Country music. With his usualy tenacity he acquired a rich storehouse of country recordings for the station and thus widenend his musical horizons. He spent a year in the army during WW2, then returned to Chicago, taking back his old job. Out of the blue, his old friend Lee Gillette from the Campus Kids, who by now was a record producer for the 3 year-old Capitol record company, asked Ken to produce a country session in Chicago with Uncle Henry's Kentucky Mountaineers. More production followed and Ken had his first of many hits with the Dinning Sisters "Buttons and bows". He was hired by Capitol, moved to Hollywood, and the rest was history. Ken recorded thousands of country, rock, pop and jazz tunes over the years, producing over 100 #1 hits. He was very unusual in his approach to producing, preferring the artists to develop their own style, and allowing them a lot of freedom in the choice of material and the musical styles used.
What a guy,
SPENT BROTHERS PRODUCTIONS
Derek Henderson's Homepage
From: Wilmillet@aol.com - Sept. 15, 1999
Right on! Certain artists that Ken Nelson produced at Capitol, are still alive and quite active musically. Hank Thompson is one of them and his sharp mental state still provides a great image of Ken Nelson during Capitol's "salad days" of the 50s. In reality, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Brenda Lee and Hank Thompson (all on the Captiol roster during that era) could each have recorded sesions at the Capitol Tower studios within weeks of each other. Hank told me that he was introduced to Nat (I beleive by Ken) while both artists were cutting tracks there (Nat in the A room, Hank in the B). Ken Nelson would have been involved to some degree or another with all of those aforemetioned artists - whew!
To this day, the sound and quality that came from the 50s era Captiol product still holds up very well in the digital 24bit/96k age. After Hank left Captiol (later ending up at Warner Bros. and MCA) he would always mention in press interviews that that his subsequent records never sounded as good as his Capitol records. That is due in large part to Ken's careful attention to detail and his knack for creating the right mix of room acoustics, engineers, artists, band and vibe. All of the hallmarks of a great producer. Yes, he certainly deserves to be in the Producer's Hall of Fame with the Phil Spectors and the like. His stuff always sounded great!
I produced a tribute CD for Hank Thompson a few years ago ("Hank Thompson & Friends" - released internationally on Curb/WEA). I used as my model many of the great re-mastered Captiol era tracks that Ken produced (re-released on the Bear Family Collection). Even though we recorded mostly new songs (many of them Hanks) for the "Tribute" CD, with various guest artists. And like Ken did in the 50s (which was then state-of-the-art), we only used vinatge tube mic pre-amps, mics and anolog tape recorders at high speed (30ips w/ no noise reduction) for most of the production. (Of course, you finally have to go digital to make the CDR master.). Ken Nelson was a great producer because he delivered the songs, the sounds, the tones and the best performances from the great artists he had to work with.
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